CONFOUND THEIR POLITICS : Stephen Frears’ ‘The Queen’ [8/10]

Only a few months after Mrs Henderson Presents, the tireless Frears – busier than ever at 65 – returns with another handsomely-mounted period-piece showcase for a revered British Dame: Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor Resents, if you like. Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor being more formally known as HM Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), here shown navigating her way through one of the most awkward and challenging periods of her half-century reign.

Beginning with the general election success of the Labour Party in May 1997 – and the ensuing arrival at Buckingham Palace of a nervy Prime-Minister-elect Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) – The Queen then jumps forward a couple of months to 31st August 1997. In Paris, Princess Diana is shown (from a distance) getting into her chauffer-driver limousine with her paramour Dodi Fayed. The rest, as they say, in history: very recent history, of course, but history all the same.

Peter Morgan's script imagines what might have transpired behind the scenes during the chaotic week following Diana's shockingly sudden death, switching between the royal family at their Scottish summer retreat at Balmoral, and Blair's twin bases of Sedgefield (his constituency home) and 10 Downing Street (his official residence.) The royals – among them Diana's former husband Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), the Queen's husband Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) and the elderly Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) – instinctively feel that grief is a private matter, and see no reason to disrupt their Balmoral sojourn and return to London.

As the days pass, and the row of flowers left at the palace gates swells to become a massive carpet, this 'stiff-upper-lip' approach seems more and more out of step with the unprecedented and increasingly hysterical public reaction to Diana's death: a divergence which is all too apparent to Blair and his advisers. Closest to Blair's ear is spinmeister extraordinaire Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley), who spots a terrific opportunity for his boss to gain popularity and prominence – at the royals' expense, if necessary…

Despite the bald title (which on reflection has more than a whiff of the Dardenne brothers' deceptive ambiguity about it) – and Mirren's superb performance in the title role – Frears' film is really almost as much about Blair as it is Elizabeth. And while Sheen opts for a more direct kind of impersonation, it's so eerily accurate (especially with regard to Blair's distinctive 'u' vowel-sounds) that it ends up being just as impressive, in its way, as Mirren's subtle exploration of Elizabeth's many hidden layers. The story does, after all, opens with Blair's election, and ends with the second of his formal visits to Buckingham Palace in his capacity as leader of 'Her Majesty's Government' – but the relationship between Queen and PM has undergone a drastic and telling change in the interim. The Labour leader has, it's made abundantly clear, acquired a new respect for and understanding of this woman – and he's also learned an awful lot about political survival.

What the film essentially dramatises is the friction between Britain's two 'leaders,' the split a direct consequence of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which resulted in Parliament in effect taking over sovereignty from the monarch. Since then, Britain's kings and queens have retained little real power but enormous symbolic significance – and The Queen examines the paradoxes inherent in such a state of affairs, brought into sharp relief during such extremis events as Diana's death.

As such, there is real substance here – it's a subject which will, as long as Britain retains its monarchy, always be topical. In 2006, of course, with Blair having announced his departure and with his popularity seemingly stuck at a very low ebb as a result of Iraq, audiences will find no shortage of irony in seeing him enjoying distinctly different fortunes here, and the Queen experiencing what has turned out to be her only real slump in the popular esteem.

For royal-watchers and Blair-ologists, the film will yield endless material for analysis and debate. But even for those with only a passing interest in the subject, it works rather unexpectedly well in terms of pure entertainment: though fundamentally serious in its aims and subtexts, The Queen is also wickedly, slyly funny – even flat-out hilarious at certain junctures. In this respect, it's a fine companion-piece to George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck – both films deftly combining actual TV footage with dramatic recreations, and using a particular historic moment to diagnose an entire body-politic.

The pacing is expertly handled, with the action rattling along in a series of mostly short scenes – broken up by a particularly well-judged pair of more contemplative sections around halfway, involving the Queen and a majestic stag which wanders onto the Balmoral hunting-grounds. The regal creature ends up meeting a distressingly messy, offscreen fate, and the rather complex symbolism of these sequences, which may nod obliquely to former Poet-Laureate Ted Hughes,  is deliberately and admirably ambiguous.

At all times Frears takes a safe-hands, conservative-with-a-small-c approach to the material, concentrating on providing (despite the occasional rough scene-transition here and there) an unobtrusive showcase for Morgan's writing and the talents of the strikingly well-chosen cast. And though this is very much a film about power-dynamics, the thesps are all such great value (McCrory's wonderfully lopsided Cherie, and Roger Allam, as crucial HM/PM interface Sir Robin Janvrin, shouldn't be overlooked) it doesn't really much matter that the heights are all a bit out of kilter – nearly everyone's either too tall (Queen, Charles) or too short (Blair.)

The biggest discrepancy relates to Philip: the consort is six feet at the very most, but is here incarnated by one of the world's lankiest actors, 6'7" James Cromwell – who looks quite a bit like the Prince facially and has got his irascibly crotchety manner down pat. And perhaps his mere presence in the film represents a hidden touch of subversion – presuming, of course, that the casting-director was aware that the American actor's middle-name is Oliver.

Neil Young
28th September, 2006

THE QUEEN : [8/10] : UK 2006 : Stephen FREARS : 103 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Sunderland (UK), 18th September 2006 – public show (paid  £4.50)